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Richmond, B.C., residents push back as farmland and heritage homes make way for mega-houses

May 3, 2018
Kerry Gold

John Baines stands at 11111 No. 4 Road in front of a 23,000-square-foot house, which he says looks more like a shopping mall.

The house, still under construction, is down the street from where he lives.

Richmond has some of the best farmland in British Columbia, but the millions of dollars being made in the buying and selling of farms for estate houses is transforming the area.

Aside from the acreage, there are other perks to owning farmland. If the owner of a two-acre-plus property leases out a portion for actual agricultural use and generates at least $2,500 a year, they enjoy a major tax break. As well, the farms are exempt from the foreign buyer tax and the province’s new speculation tax, which only apply to residential properties. (Taxes would still apply to the residential portion of a farm, if there’s an actual house on it.) The exemption of farmland from so many taxes will surely make the market for Richmond farms even hotter.
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Sitting in his home, John Baines questioned why government isn't doing more to protect farmland in the Richmond area.

Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Baines and others question why government isn’t doing more to protect the area’s arable land.

“The whole idea of the Agricultural Land Reserve is there is a higher law than just letting people do whatever they want with land, particularly if you want to preserve farmland,” Mr. Baines says.

Kerry Starchuk and Paul Milaire stand nearby, with Mr. Milaire’s video camera running. The duo is making their latest in a series of videos about the transformation of Richmond, a change so staggering that it has drawn media interest from around the world. Ms. Starchuk and Mr. Milaire hope their work will stir the debate closer to home.

“There is a lot of stuff not being talked about, so we thought that by speaking with residents, which we do in these videos, we can show what is happening on the ground and what they’re dealing with, what they’re feeling,” says Mr. Milaire, who purchased a Richmond townhouse with his wife. His parents still live in the Richmond house where he grew up.

Ms. Starchuk is an outspoken, take-charge citizen activist and Mr. Milaire is a 29-year-old educational media producer who’s deeply worried about the future of his city. Mr. Milaire had seen Ms. Starchuk on the news and reached out, suggesting they work together to raise awareness with the Changing Richmond Facebook page, which is where they post their videos. They’ve produced several so far, talking to Richmond residents about how they feel about such rapid change. And the stories are bleak.

“I feel like it all comes back to money, pretty much,” Mr. Milaire says. “If someone has a certain amount of money, that money is going to speak to people. It will speak to people who can build you a new house, who can sell you an expensive car, who will maintain your yard, sell your home, who will make a video about it and then sell it internationally. It comes back to that, really. We can put bandages on things, like we can prevent people from building ‘X-size’ house, but the bigger problem is there’s this massive amount of money showing up and that’s hard for a lot of people to deny.”

Their last video, about Richmond’s Monds neighbourhood, was their most successful yet. It features Ray Arnold, a retired postsecondary art educator, who has witnesses the emptying out of his community as it transitions to big houses with unlicensed cars parked out front (left unlicensed because the owners aren’t in town). The houses are worth millions and they’re usually empty or rarely-used.

Not so long ago, Richmond was a place to buy a house and raise a family. But the concept of the starter home, Mr. Arnold says in the video, has fallen by the wayside.
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“The starter home is a dimension of the middle-class lifestyle. If you eliminate the middle class, there is no need for starter homes,” he says.

Mr. Arnold and his wife moved to Richmond more than 20 years ago. Today, their old split-level home is worth around $2-million.

“When we bought it, it was at a time when, if you sold a split-level here, it was 95 per cent likely it would be bought for people to move into and make a home,” he says in a phone interview. “Now, it’s 100-per-cent certain that it would be immediately bulldozed and a mega-home built. That’s how things have changed. The middle class is quickly abandoning Richmond.”

For the past eight or so years, Mr. Arnold says he’s been “at war” with the city, writing letters to newspapers and phoning city staff. If you search his name on the Internet, you’ll see the results of years of letter writing.

The misuse of agricultural land is the extreme end of Richmond’s crisis,” he says, and it’s “truly frightening.”

“I can’t over-exaggerate how complex and ridiculous this has become, and I blame, of course, the short-sightedness and ignorance on the part of the political leaders at the city,” Mr. Arnold says.

“It’s a simple equation in my mind: homes are what make a community. If you replace homes with houses, then that community is progressively deconstructed.”

Ms. Starchuk describes the area as a “war zone.” She’s a fourth-generation Richmond resident. Now, her neighbour’s house is for sale for $3-million. She could cash out, but like Mr. Arnold, she doesn’t want to leave her home. But she’s also not sure how long she can take it.

“There is confusion and chaos everywhere. It’s pretty distressing to come home to it on a constant basis. It never ends,” she says. “I’m trying to weather the storm, but I don’t know how much more one can take, because it’s hard.”
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Artist and photographer Glen Andersen has lived in Richmond for nine years and he started tracking the mega mansions about five years ago. He has created montages of the transforming farms, including the massive new Spanish style house on rural Finn Road, which he shows us. There are many massive homes along the road, which are oddly juxtaposed with the few old farmhouses and barns that remain.

“Some of them I still track, just out of my own interest,” Mr. Andersen says. “Because on a basic level, normal [income] people are kind of insulted by that kind of use of land, especially in Richmond, where we know the farmland is diminishing and among the best land in Canada.”

Richmond was the rare municipality that didn’t cap the size of houses on farmland, until last year.

The provincial guideline is a maximum size of 5,382 square feet. The late real estate consultant Richard Wozny had recommended a cap of 4,200 square feet. But city council voted to allow nearly 11,000 square feet.

Critics say that size of house is still far too big. Landowners argue that farmers need big houses and limiting square footage will cause their property values to drop.

At No. 4 Road, Mr. Baines believes it will become a hot-button election issue, with residents who want to lower the allowable square footage butting heads with landowners, developers and realtors. But there are still many residents who don’t even know that the farms are at risk. Too many people aren’t aware that farms have become all about pools, tennis courts and estate living, he says.

He admits he didn’t pay enough attention until he bought his heritage house for $1-million three years ago that was surrounded by farmland. That’s when he witnessed the building of the 23,000-square-foot. house down the road from his, which is now two years into construction.

It prompted him to join the group, Richmond FarmWatch, which is fighting farmland speculation.

“The bigger home you allow, the more their land is worth,” Mr. Baines says. “And there are all kinds of people with money around who would like to build a mansion.

“When you have multi-millions of dollars at stake, people can get very adamant when other people oppose what they want.”

In other words, it could get ugly.

And Ms. Starchuk and Mr. Milaire will be there, documenting it, hoping that others in the region will finally see what they are seeing.